He came wearing a yellow raincoat. At least, that is what I remember him wearing, the day you forgot to answer the door. Memories from then rotted in my mind for a week afterwards, before this writing, before you. Knee deep in mud, he sloshed his way behind me to the bottom step of your porch. He said:
“Why do you keep doing this?”
His voice was thin, unpleasant, confusing. I remember I tossed him a strange look, the sort of look one gives to a second head, or perhaps a blue giraffe. Had you invited someone else to our weekend tea, you would have told me. It seemed inconceivable that there be another visitor, another person generally at our tea-for-two without prior arrangement. I held you to that.
This is why I started with giving the doorbell a second chance. The man with the raincoat scrunched his nose seeing me do this. Then he laughed – something bitterly dry. With my best effort, I wrenched at the door knob with my free hand.
But it refused me. Thinking that perhaps I was out of shape, and perhaps the cold of the rain had changed the dimensions of the familiar house thermodynamically, I readjusted the kilogram of butter cookies I had hanging from my shoulder in a satchel, took a deep breath, and rammed my shoulder into the door repeatedly. This part drew no reaction from your unwelcome guest.
He must have been a very stoic man.
It took a while before I heard it: the jingle of keys being pulled from his back pocket. As he unlocked your door, he spoke of the realtor who had called to tell him about my visits here. Would you believe it? Real estate agents. Always snooping about other people’s business. I decided to show him the butter cookies.
“These are her favourite.”
“They still are.” I made sure to shove my way in before he could.
Inside, dim light picked out the outlines of your furniture. A chill greeted me. My mouth went dry. Even though every little thing was exactly where it was meant to be, the tin of butter cookies began trembling in my hands. It was the air, I thought, just the air. It was dusty, a little grey. Perhaps you hadn’t the time to clean it out lately, and that was alright. We all get lazy. Especially me, when you leave me home alone. I laid the cookies out on the dining room table. The fuzziness in the atmosphere hung awkwardly like a new blanket fresh from the store.
I heard a click. Behind me, the man was opening a small closet with another one of his large bunch of keys, grabbing hold of a broom, bucket, mop. He told me if I was going to stay here, I might as well help out. So I did.
I imagined things must have been hard for you. I thought of the great wall-mounted canvas you once showed me after tea, the delicate web of flame and ice you wove together to birth the perfect form of a coral reef, the one we saw in the Maldives during semester break. If every piece you made were that immaculate, things must have been hard for you. I could only hope you didn’t work too hard.
Once we had swept and mopped, the stranger straightened. Sternly dusted his hands off. Stalked over to where I stood. He claimed he had something to show me.
Though his lips moved, his eyes told me what he wanted to say. They were to me as belt buckles are to metal detectors. I noticed he had left the yellow raincoat hanging on your coat hanger, albeit that was only because I did not wish to meet his eyes, any longer. They were the sort of eyes even you could not have made beautiful.
He took my wrist. His hand on mine was clammy, soft, but firm. It was an odd contrast: all hard in the face, all tender in the flesh. I think you could have painted this, at least, had you only come downstairs. You did not come downstairs. He must have been more impatient than I, because he tugged me towards the carpeted bottom of the little spiral staircase you had me install for you a year ago. I would never disturb your work myself. You know this.
Standing there resisting him did make me feel nostalgic. I used to sit on this staircase with you, planning our next holiday. We would dream of an island that tried hard to seem deserted, clothing itself with thick trees and fronds, dusting cheeks of sand with little pearly shells and pebbles like eyeshadow. Then, deep in the heart of the jungle where the earth was richest, there would be a house waiting just like this one. At home, abroad. Just the two of us. It was the sort of thing we could get used to.
When I told him this, I think it broke him. His eyes blew wide.
“She’s gone, alright!” The cracks in his grey face gaped open. “She’s gone. She has been gone for a decade, you are standing in an empty house that I have the keys to, an empty house I am planning to sell for – our – children’s inheritance.”
Silence bloomed between us. I let it. With the years, I find that a lack of words oftentimes says more than words alone. Both our gazes drifted to your delicate, and peeling pink wallpaper with the carnation prints. You would need it replaced, soon. There was always the worry of flakes falling into your tea.
When I allowed him to calm down, a sinewy, string-pulled smile ripped its way across his taut face. “Wouldn’t you like to go home?” his head canted to one side. “I’ll call your nurse for you, just hang on.”
I suppose he must have diagnosed me with something right then, as you told me he did with people he didn’t understand, back in the day. I was surprised I took so long to recognize this man, your man. He had changed his face. Plastic surgery, numerous rounds. Gone were the big warty cheeks you used to complain about, and the pudge, and the cavalier look in his eye you never appreciated. I looked him up and down. He recoiled. Less surprising, was him shoving the ring of keys into my hands and storming out through the door. Less surprising, was when he told the realtor the deal was off.
I also suppose he didn’t see the plate of cookies at the table, half-emptied, enough crumbs for one.